This spring marked the fifty-third anniversary of the Tibetan uprising against Chinese rule after Beijing took control of Lhasa in 1959 and the Dalai Lama fled to India soon after. One of the untold stories of this period is the role of Tibetan women in five decades of resistance. On March 12, 1959, thousands of Tibetan women organized a nonviolent protest in front of the Dalai Lama’s home against what the Tibetan Women’s Association describes as “the illegal and forcible occupation of their country by the People’s Republic of China.” Since then, the TWA has marked every March 12th as “Women’s Uprising Day” to remember the many who had been imprisoned, tortured, or executed after that protest, including a woman by the name of Pamo Kusang, who had been married to a low-level Tibetan official at the time of her martyrdom.
I had not heard Pamo Kusang’s name before moving to China this year. But according to the Tibet Justice Center, Kusang and others “remained defiant” while they were “brutally tortured and mercilessly interrogated” for years after the event. In 1970, during the high point of the Cultural Revolution, Pamo Kusang organized a protest from behind prison walls. A group of women marched together on prison grounds and chanted anti-Chinese slogans. Kusang was seized by guards and transferred to a notoriously violent prison. Under interrogation there, she repeatedly refused to name names, insisting that she alone was responsible for organizing every protest in which she participated. For her defiance, she was among a group of women sentenced to public execution. According to literature distributed by the Justice Center:
The crowd could hardly recognize them for they had suffered beyond imagination from many years of imprisonment. Pamo Kusang herself was crippled and had lost her hearing in one ear as well as her hair which had probably been pulled out by the roots. They were lined up in front of a pit and shot by firing squad in the back.
But the fate of Pamo Kusang did not silence Tibetan women in the decades that followed. For a time, female Tibetan protests were, by and large, peaceful events focused on bearing witness. But now, as the Tibetan resistance movement enters a new phase, that is changing.
Tibetan women are now setting themselves ablaze to protest Chinese rule in increasing numbers, a radical shift from decades of nonviolent resistence. Since March 2011, some forty Tibetans have set themselves on fire in the name of a free Tibet; as of this writing, seven have been women, all but one of whom died from the self-immolation.
Scant details are available. Tibet remains shut off; very few journalists have been able to get past the many checkpoints sequestering the story from the world. Almost no pictures and every fewer reliable eyewitness accounts have made it into the international media.
The nonprofit advocacy group Free Tibet, which says it relies on a network of well-established sources on the ground throughout the region to promote awareness, shared details of who the martyred women were and how they died.
On October 17, 2011, for the very first time in Tibet’s history, a twenty-year-old female Buddhist nun named Tenzin Wangmo died after setting herself on fire outside the Dechen Chokorling nunnery in Ngaba. A photograph shows a delicate face and a serene smile. She reportedly told fellow nuns on her last morning that she had something of great importance to do. After she set herself on fire, she is said to have walked forward, slowly, until she collapsed.
The second woman was named Palden Choetso. She was thirty-five years old and had been a nun for fifteen years. She chose a public place, the Chume Bridge in the center of Tawu County, in eastern Tibet, when she self-immolated on November 3, 2011. She was well known in the community; a vigil was later held in her memory. As I learned about her, I couldn’t help but note that the name “Palden” means “spontaneously accomplished.”
The third nun on this list is an eighteen-year-old woman by the name of Tenzin Choedon. In the photo she left behind, she allows herself a soft smile. She was from the same Ngaba nunnery as Tenzin Wangmo. According to Free Tibet, Tenzin Choedon called out slogans of protest against the Chinese government as she burned.
That the first three Tibetan women to self-immolate were all nuns is not surprising. Carole Devine, in her book Determination: Tibetan Women and the Struggle for an Independent Tibet, writes that nuns maintain a unique position in the fight for Tibet’s freedom: “Knowing they may be arrested and tortured during their protests, and knowing they do not have children who would suffer as a result of their imprisonment or death, they are willing to be leaders in the independence movement.”
There were no such comforts for Tsering Kyi or, more dramatically, a woman only known as Rinchen, the first known lay women to self-immolate.
Tsering was twenty when, on March 3, 2011, she set herself on fire in front of a vegetable market in the village of Tro Kho Menma Shang, in eastern Tibet’s Machu County. Days before her death, according to Free Tibet, she had talked about Ngaba, where two of the nuns had self-immolated: “Tibetans are burning themselves. We should do something for Tibet. Life is meaningless if we don’t do something for Tibet.”
Tsering was followed a day later by Rinchen. Her act was especially momentous because she was the first mother to take her own life. A widow with four children, she set herself on fire in front of a police surveillance station at the main gate of the Kirti Monastery in eastern Tibet, a place widely known as a respected institution of Buddhist thought. As part of the recent crackdown, hundred of Chinese officials moved into the monastery to monitor all activity. Reports are it is now a virtual prison. As flames engulfed Rinchen, she cried out, “Tibet needs freedom and Gyalwa Rinpoche”—the Dalai Lama—“needs to return to Tibet.”
On May 30, 2012, another young mother felt compelled to make the same choice. Rechock, who left behind three children, died at the scene after setting herself ablaze in front of the Jonang Dzamthang monastery in Barma township. Free Tibet reports that she spent her final days tending animals in the countryside before travelling into town to commit her act of protest.
The last woman on this list, as of this writing, may have made the biggest impact. She is Dekyi Choezom, who is also the only woman believed to have survived her injuries. What we know of her reasoning is enlightening in how purely political, as opposed to emotional, her motivation appears to have been.
On June 27th, Dekyi set herself on fire during a protest over land rights in Jyekundo, Eastern Tibet. Jyekundo suffered a devastating earthquake in 2010. Soon after, the government announced plans to confiscate land or “relocate” residents to make way for new government buildings, a decision Tibetan residents are resisting.
“This is the first time a Tibetan in Tibet has set fire to themself alongside a larger protest,” said Stephanie Brigden, director of Free Tibet.
What is striking about Dekyi’s act is what followed. Two of her relatives involved in the protest were reportedly beaten and detained. Several monks, as well as locals, protested for their release with a very specific threat. They declared that they, too, would set themselves on fire if their demands were not met. Later that day, authorities released Dekyi’s relatives. She is believed to be receiving treatement for her injuries in a hospital in Xining.
Up until this point, self-immolations by women had been independent, self-contained acts of protest. Dekyi’s action, within the context of a larger protest, changed that. We can’t know if authorities released her relatives because they feared having blood on their hands. But we do know that her action had a domino effect that did two things. It forced the hand of authorities and, perhaps intentionally, it ended the precedent that self-immolations by women had to be solitary, self-contained forms of protest.
In Hindu mythology, Sati, one of the many wives of the god Shiva, said to be despondent after her father insulted her choice of husband, sets herself on fire and dies. But many Tibetan scholars say to associate self-immolation with despair is incorrect.
“It is a conscious political act,” says Yangdon Dhondup, a scholar of religion at the University of London. “It cannot be compared to suicide, which is not a Buddhist way of ending one’s life.” Even Buddha himself sacrificed his own body for the welfare of hungry animals.
The Beijing-based writer and Tibet advocate Tsering Woeser, who lives under near-constant surveillance, told me that there are historical references to self-immolation as an act of devotion and joy; a demonstration of loyalty to the religion. Research shows that the act of self-immolation has been tolerated, even exalted, in the practice of Mahayana Buddhism, which is not a sect but a collection of Buddhist practices and includes Zen and Tibetan Buddhism. Such protest became familiar to Westerners in 1963, when a monk named Thich Quang Duc self-immolated in the middle of a busy Saigon street to protest the South Vietnamese government’s imposition of the Catholic religion. In the week following, according to a Time magazine story, thirteen other monks followed suit, as “setting oneself on fire rather suddenly became a political act.”
Self-immolation may not be unique as an ecstatic political gesture among devout Buddhists, but it moved into a new context when it became part of Tibet’s female resistance.
So why are women making that choice?
“Tibetan women have been at the forefront of the protest movement,” says Stephanie Brigden of Free Tibet. “They have one of the longest records of nonviolent protest in history, but they are feeling absolutely desperate.”
Monks and nuns are now being forced by the Chinese to go through endless political re-education camps. They must denounce the Dalai Lama and are under constant surveillance. They are a prime target for the Chinese government because they are so identified with indigenous Tibetan culture.
But then what of Tsering Kyi, the twenty-year-old student from Machu Country, in Gansu Province, who set herself on fire in the spring of 2011? Although not of a religious order, she too represented a part of Tibetan identity as a member of a nomadic family. Once central to Tibetan life, nomads are no longer allowed to move freely with their herds; some nomadic communities are forcibly resettled and poverty is rampant among them. Rinchen, the widowed mother who killed herself in apparent support of Tsering Kyi, also came from poverty in one of the areas hardest hit by the Chinese occupation, Ngaba County.
What will the legacy of these women be? Several experts I spoke with told me that the families of those who commit acts of self-immolation often honor their loved ones as martyrs. In the words of Brigden: “These individuals are regarded as heroes.”
More than one observer of the situation in Tibet shared with me a worrisome theory: that in some areas of Tibet there is a belief that enough incidents of self-immolation will generate much-needed international attention. The additional pressure on the Chinese government, it is believed, will force it to cease its persecution of Tibet. But this seems unlikely given the extent of Beijing’s control and its ability to use its political and economic clout to stifle international interest in the issue.
When China’s leaders gathered in Beijing this year at the Great Hall of the People for the annual National People’s Congress, they took turns claiming the stage to announce what the future will hold. A lower GDP, more military spending, promises to fix the housing market—the performances engineered to maintain stability and calm at any cost in the face of a looming transition of power at the very highest levels. One of those who spoke was Wu Zegang, head of the Tibetan region in Sichuan Province, where many of the self-immolations are taking place. He stated contemptuously that these acts were intended “to divide the nation.” As extreme as their choice may be, the women who have set themselves ablaze over the past year seem actually to have accomplished quite the reverse: they’ve brought the nation—as they define it, the nation of Tibet—closer together.
E. Sinclair has worked as a foreign correspondent since 2003.